Watching traditional cheesemakers in Switzerland will give you a new appreciation of hard work and the art of making cheese.
We’ve watched and participated in cheesemaking in a number of settings. I’m always amazed at the sheer physical effort involved. Then, count in the chemistry and business acumen of a traditional cheesemaker, and you have a person and profession that demands your respect.
Our advice is to get away from the major tourist destinations. Challenge yourself to walk in the meadows, step in a cow pie or two, and swat away the flies that join you on this journey. This is where cheesemaking begins in Switzerland.
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Cheesemaking Demonstrations in Chateaux d’Oex
Our understanding of traditional cheesemaking began in village of Chateau d’Oex in the French speaking region of Switzerland.
We watched the cheese-making process at La Chalet and Fromagerie, a wonderful restaurant in Chateau d’Oex that is as popular with locals as it is tourists. This is an authentic chalet where cattle once slept under the family living quarters in the winter months, generating heat for the family above.
The cheesemaking demonstrations include use of an open fire and copper pots that have been used for generations. Most of the demonstration was in French and German. But I picked up enough to know that cheesemaking the old-fashioned way is hard work. My shoulders ached just watching the young woman stir that big old pot.
While she stirred, we enjoyed a big pot of fondue and the beautiful setting. We were dumb enough to ignore the advice from a local who watched as we ate. She kept telling us to order hot tea or a cup of hot water to consume with the cheese fondue. I had a Diet Coke instead.
She told us that if you drink a cool beverage while eating fondue, the hot cheese will cool too quickly in your stomach, creating a big lump of cheese and a bad case of indigestion.
A few hours later, I realized she knew what she was talking about.
Spend the Day Working with a Traditional Cheesemaker
In Chateau d’Oex, as in many places in rural Switzerland, there is a centuries old tradition of cows parading out the village each spring to their summer grazing grounds high in the alpine meadows. The whole town turns out to wish them farewell.
The families move with their herds and live in simple huts all summer long. Their life for three months or so is consumed with milking cows and making cheese.
The cows are quite happy in the fresh air eating the rich alpine grasses and more than 250 kinds of wildflowers. The result if very good, rich milk with no hormones. There are about 75 families in the Chateau d’Oex region that spend their summers this way. And some of them invite visitors to spend the day with them and learn about the hard work of making cheese.
A Family Tradition of Making Cheese in Switzerland
So we made arrangements to spend the day with Ruedi and Helen Wehren in their little summer hut. That’s it, back there behind the cows.
It was built in 1791 and has no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Ruedi’s family has been working out of this little structure each summer for six generations.
He uses the same copper pots, the same tools and techniques that his ancestors used more than 200 years ago. That in itself is amazing.
The Wehren family keeps about 20 cows that have to be milked twice a day. That’s about 250 liters or 66 gallons of milk. From that, the family makes about four 25-pound wheel of cheese. It’s an all day affair and hard work. He’ll make more than 160 wheels of cheese in a summer and sell them through a local co-op.
Smoke filled the little hut as Ruedi worked, as did flies. When you have that many cows around, the flies are just a fact of life. The Wehren family didn’t seem to notice them at all.
It was simply amazing to watch Ruedi work. With an open fire in the main room of their little hut, he stirred and fussed over the milk as it became whey, allowing us to taste it at various stages in the process. At one point, he rolled up his sleeves and submerged the cheesecloth in the bottom of the big copper pot. It was just a few seconds, but his bare arms were submerged in 135º liquid.
I grew up on a farm and witnessed a lot of hard physical work among generations of my family in making a living there. But Ruedi and his family took hard physical labor to a new level. Spending the day with them was an insight into another time and way of life.
If you would like to spend a day with a traditional cheesemaker while visiting Switzerland, just about any hotel concierge can make that happen. Or simply reach out to the Swiss tourist office.
How to Buy Your Own Dairy Cow in Switzerland
While we were visiting a dairy in Wengenalp, we were delighted to learn about a program where you can buy your own dairy cow in Switzerland. It’s basically a cow share program. I love it!
It’s an effort initiated by local chefs and restaurant owners in Wengen to help provide financial resources to and a better understanding of Switzerland’s small dairy farmers and the traditional cheese making process.
A Simmental cow costs about 1,500 CHF, so ten people who are passionate about small dairy products would spend 150 CHF, then you’ve got a new cow on the diary farm. In addition to the purchase price, each cow share owner must spend at least four hours a summer pulling invasive sorrel from the pasture, shoveling cow manure or similar tasks on the farm while learning the dirty details of what it takes to make authentic small batch cheeses in Switzerland.
In return for your time and money, you’ll receive a designated amount of cheese, sausages and wine from the Wengen Alp Dairy. So how cool is that! How many of your friends can say they own a Swiss cow who makes their own person cheese? I simply love it!
Tools to Enjoy Switzerland and Cheese